After years of behaving like a teenager shadow boxing in the basement of his mother’s house, playing out the fantasy of knocking out Ivan Drago in the 1985 movie Rocky IV, the US and NATO find themselves confronting the reality.
Being a member of NATO used to be pretty cost-free: fun even. You had a suite in the flashy new HQ, admired your flag with all the others, gloried in your excellent values. The biggest downside was that you were expected to provide a few soldiers to participate in the latest war in some dusty place. But, you could go home after destroying Libya or Iraq or Afghanistan and forget about it. Until the refugees showed up. And Washington really did insist that you buy some of its weapons and it was harder and harder to say no. And you started getting sucked into things that weren’t as much fun as you expected. But, overall, for the leaders anyway, it was an attractive deal. And most of you didn’t like Russia much, having edited your own communists out of the story and forgotten what the Germans did to you.
Russia was feeble and weak, going down, and certainly no match for “the greatest alliance in history“. But what happens when that teddy bear turns nasty? Blowing up countries from 20,000 feet, you had stopped paying attention. Lost wars in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iraq turn out to be poor preparation and the bear had been paying attention. But, you cry, NATO was supposed to protect me, not put me into greater danger!
And that is the dilemma that Moscow has been patiently preparing for you. On 17 December Moscow published two draft treaties. Here are the official English versions: Treaty between The United States of America and the Russian Federation on security guarantees and Agreement on measures to ensure the security of The Russian Federation and member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. They should be read but, in essence, after reminding the USA and NATO of all the international treaties that they signed up to and ignored, they are asked to commit themselves again, in writing, in public. They must accept the principle that security is mutual. In addition the USA and Russia will not station nuclear weapons outside their territories – which will require the USA to remove some. Finally – and not negotiable – the USA and NATO must solemnly commit themselves to no more expansion. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov later explained why the drafts had been made public: “because we are aware of the West’s ability to obfuscate any uncomfortable issues for them… We have serious doubts that the main thing in our proposals, namely the unconditional demand not to expand NATO to the east, will not be swept under the carpet.” There is little expectation from Moscow that these demands will be taken seriously by the West. I outline my assessment of the “or else” here and again here. Others have done so elsewhere: Moscow has quite a range of options.
There were two rounds of talks in Geneva and a meeting with NATO. The US written answer was delivered on 26 January and, in Lavrov’s words, did not address “the main issue” of NATO expansion and deployment of strike weapons, although there were openings on “matters of secondary importance”. So here we are and we await the next step. It is, of course, quite certain that Moscow has the next step worked out and the ones after that.
Other events since December have been interesting. The CIA Director visited Kiev 17 January; the UK began supplying Ukraine with light anti-armour weapons (rather elderly as it turned out); the US is sending more and others are providing light AD systems; Canada sent some troops (mostly it seemed to help evacuate Embassy personnel); a senior German naval officer resigned after committing crimespeak; some US troops on “heightened preparedness”. The biggest laugh was the evacuate-or-not dance: Canada, USA and UK, the three most enthusiastic cheerleaders for war to the last Ukrainian, are running, the EU is staying.
Other developments worth noting. On 3 January the P5 declared “We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Iran and Russia showed close cooperation. Russian and Syrian aircraft made a joint patrol of all Syria’s borders; these are to be regular occurrences. Agreements with Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua in a range of areas, including military collaboration. And China’s Foreign Minister advised Washington to take Moscow’s concerns seriously. Only a fool would think these were random coincidences.
There was lots of opinion, of course. Much of it stunningly idiotic. My favourite is An Aging Vladimir Putin Hopes War Can Make a Sagging Empire Rise Again. I must confess that when one sees “aging” and “sagging empire”, Putin and Russia are not the first things that come to mind. But these are memorable as well: How Germany’s greed for gas, and another grubby deal with Moscow, could plunge Europe into an abyss and Is Germany a Reliable American Ally? Nein: Berlin goes its own way, prizing cheap gas, car exports to China, and keeping Putin calm. A cry from mummy’s basement: Why threat to Ukraine from Putin’s Russia is exaggerated – Gwynne Dyer: THE geopolitical question of the moment is: how important is it to humour Russian leader Vladimir Putin? The answer is: not very. From another couch warrior: Russia May Underestimate Ukraine and NATO. And lots of threats: eighteen response scenarios; “sanctions like you’ve not seen before“; personal sanctions. The US State Department complains about “Disarming Disinformation” and burbles that it’s “United with Ukraine“. First he said “only winners” could make demands, then he complained he didn’t have a seat.
But Moscow doesn’t want to “invade Ukraine”; if it did it would have to pay for it. In any event, the way Ukraine’s population is melting away, in another couple of decades, it will be uninhabited.
More rational thinkers exist. Scott Ritter, no couch warrior, knows that America couldn’t defend Ukraine even if it wanted to. The troops Washington has put on alert may be from the storied 82nd Airborne but they’re only light infantry. NATO no longer has the heavy forces and their support in place. But Russia does. There is no credible military threat from NATO. Many understand reality: Biden’s Opportunity for Peace in Eurasia; The Overstretched Superpower: Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?; Opinion: Ignore the hawks, Mr. President. You’re right on Ukraine. People in RAND realise that the weapons being given Ukraine will be useless. Worse than useless, in fact, if they encourage Kiev to start something. This fictional account describes what a Russia-Ukraine war would really look like – over in a day and all with stand-off weapons, a few special forces and the local forces.
There have been some second thoughts. Washington and its allies have been booming the “Russian invasion” threat as hard as they can but Kiev is trying to to turn down the volume – it doesn’t want to scare its principal backers away. No signs on 2 January, or 25 January. Delicate job this, as we see here: you have to say not now but maybe later. Now even Washington is trying to dial it down – after all, Russia has been “about to invade” for three months now.
But the real second thoughts are forming in Europe. By addressing its demands to Washington, Moscow has shown the Europeans where they fit on the tree. It’s Europe that will – again – pay for Washington’s conceits. Washington is always careful to exempt itself from the anti-Russia sanctions – no shortage of rocket engines or oil or titanium – but Europe can’t. Amusingly, the EU is complaining to the WTO about the counter sanctions Moscow put on food which ended a profitable export market. The two favourite sanctions Washington is pushing for are stopping Nord Stream 2 and kicking Russia out of SWIFT. Neither of these will hurt the USA but they will be devastating for Europe. Killing Nord Stream will be a severe blow to German industry. And, absent SWIFT, how is Europe supposed to pay for Russian gas imports? No wonder Germany’s Scholz wants a “qualified fresh start” with Russia as the Foreign Minister calls for diplomacy. An Open Letter in Germany. France’s Macron thinks the EU should start its own dialogue. Hungary’s Orbán is going there for another reasons but will surely be talking about this. Croatia wants nothing to do with the adventure. Bulgaria wants out. One entertaining climbdown was the British Defence Minister’s invitation to Shoygu to come to London; instead he will go to Moscow. Even Washington and London are starting to learn that the sanctions won’t be off-stage after all. London has been warned ther e could be a big spike in energy co sts and some big American companies have asked t o be excepted. As for sending troops, Washington’s not that “United with Ukraine“. NATO won’t; UK’s Johnson admits no NATO count ry is capable of a large-scale deployment in Ukraine.
We are coming to the end of the story. All those people in the West who thought they could ignore Russia’s interests are starting to suspect that they don’t have the leverage they thought they had. Russia is pretty sanctions-proof. It is the closest thing to an economic autarky on the planet: lots of territory, lots of raw materials, lots of water, lots of energy, all the manufacturing it needs, self-sufficient in food, well-educated people, backed up government, armed to the teeth. It’s pretty impregnable and it’s not run by fools. And it’s very closely allied to the biggest manufacturing power and population in the world. Not an easy target at all and almost impossible to hurt without hurting yourself more.
And all this to preserve the so-called right of a country no one wants in NATO to ask to be admitted. What a principle to die for!
Time for Moscow to tighten the screws. How much will Europe and the other NATOites be prepared to pay for being in a security organisation that does nothing but get its members into disastrous wars and make them insecure?
Putin and his team can allow themselves a small smile: they’ve been planning this for a long time. He warned us in 2007 and here we are today.
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I can think of no better demonstration of Washington’s bankruptcy than Nuland’s appeal yesterday: “We are calling on Beijing to use its influence with Moscow to urge diplomacy…“.